The Cabrillo Unified School District says that Latino boys on the coast are significantly more likely than their peers to be pigeon-holed as special education students when their difficulties may be simply related to learning English. That fact can lead to inequities in educational outcomes and opportunities.

Now comes the difficult work of getting appropriate help for students who struggle but do not have a learning deficiency.

The trouble in Cabrillo schools comes early for young Latino boys who fail to keep up with their classmates. More than half of those designated for special education were identified as such by the third grade.

It was not immediately clear why the problem was unique to Latino boys in the district, nor just how acute the problem is.

The issue came up at Thursday’s school board meeting. Representing the district, El Granada Elementary School Principal Martha Ladd told the board there were two root causes for misidentifying too many Latinos as special education students. The first is a “systemic challenge” in determining whether slow academic progress is due to problems learning English or a disability. The second has to do with inconsistencies between school sites and staff turnover.

When deemed to have a “significant disproportionality” problem, local districts are required to use a portion of their federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act funds to create a Comprehensive Coordinated Early Intervening Services Plan to address the issue of racial bias.

The school district’s plan to address the issue has been approved as part of what Ladd called “intensive monitoring” by state education authorities.

The problem is not new, nor is it unique to the coast. Overrepresentation of children in special education programs and disproportional discipline based on race or ethnicity has been a national problem for decades. Congress attempted to address the matter during 1997 and 2004 reauthorizations of the disabilities act. Yet, the problem persists.

In 2017, the California Department of Education said there were 900 local school districts in the state that were “disproportionate.” To be categorized as “significantly disproportionate” — like the

Cabrillo district — a local school system must report a disproportionality for three years.

Special education indicates a range of potential learning difficulties, and children who are designated for special education can get help, such as accommodations with testing formats or adaptive physical education. It also means that special education children are likely to miss out on general education and can fall behind their peers as a result.

The district’s ability to move the needle on the problem can have real implications for students.

Researchers say significant disproportionality can create a “racial school climate gap.” Teachers sometimes have lower expectations for students deemed to need special education. There is sometimes a social stigma attached that can be exacerbated by racial differences. One 2015 study found that Black and Hispanic students feel less connected to their schools and less safe in them when compared to white students. And once students are miscategorized as having a disability, they lose learning opportunities and are often disciplined differently for school infractions. A federal study in 2015 found that Black students identified to have a disability are more than four times more likely than other students to be suspended.

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